Jesus Christ Superstar (Norman Jewison, 1973)

The end is just a little harder, when brought about by friends

I hesitate to write this review. Jesus Christ Superstar has for a long time been my favorite movie. How do I explain this? Where to start? Let me begin by saying this: if you think it’s strange for a pronounced atheist like myself to have this film at number one, read on.

From the first moment, JCS presents a unique view. It’s the story of the crucifixion seen through the eyes of Judas. Normally viewed as a lowly traitor, a person who sells his soul for coin and a truly despicable personage; here he is the only clear thinking person among the apostles. The dividing line between Judas and the rest isn’t morality, it’s belief. The other apostles follow Jesus in blind faith, they are high on his words. Judas, however, fundamentally doesn’t believe Jesus is anything more than a friend and teacher with, frankly, dangerous ideas that will put them all in grave peril. This is why he sells him out. It’s not for malice, nor self-preservation, but because he refuses to commit his destiny to an unknown god. This Judas is a champion for rational thought, for justifiable doubt.

Ironically, the person standing nearest to him is Jesus himself. He, too, struggles with what to believe in, though his battle is one we can’t share in. He is a character pushed and prodded by divine intervention and ultimately unfathomable to real humans. As the familiar events of the story unfold in song and dance, we grow more distant from him. Judas is the only one that understands what is happening and tries to provoke Jesus into returning to reality. The conflict deepens and in desperation, Judas hands him over to the authorities: a ruling body of Pharisees. From here on, Jesus gets processed through various layers of power, before his well-known end.

This is where another departure takes place. Caiaphas and Annas, Pontius Pilate, king Herod – they’re all nominally the villains of the play, yet completely understandable in their motivations. They aren’t evil. They do the right thing, according to what they believe to be best, or what is prescribed by the situation. The Jewish priests want to silence Jesus for fear of upsetting the Roman occupier and inviting war to the land. Herod is perhaps the least likeable fellow; a hedonistic puppet monarch. Yet even he acts merely as a child whose toy refuses to dance, and later shows remorse when he sees the toy whipped. Finally, Pilate is a character riddled with doubt. All he wants is to set Jesus free and be done with the ordeal. Yet here is a chanting crowd out for blood, a powerless king, and his superiors, who will look badly upon him if this gets out of hand. He offers the prisoner countless chances to walk away, but the strange man seems set on enduring punishment. When Pilate finally gives the order, he washes his hands of it. By this, he proves most noble: how many in the audience would have lost their patience long, long before him?

JCS can be viewed in two very distinct ways. For a believer, it is a surprising and gripping take on the story of Jesus that affirms how he died at the cross for morally pure reasons. Perhaps it will generate empathy for those once thought to be plain villains. For an atheist, this is a completely different story. If you see Jesus as no more than a man, it becomes a fascinating tale about how blind belief will lead to self-destruction. I am with Judas: I see the dangers and can’t understand why Jesus doesn’t act upon them. When he is questioned by Pilate, why doesn’t he speak up and save himself? When presented to Herod, why not say a single word to please him? Why seek destruction when that would ruin Mary and the others who love you? To a person of rationality, his motivations are absurd and based on nothing, making this Jesus indeed a fool. Admirable for standing up for his beliefs, but delusional nonetheless. His worth in this story lies in how he upsets the machine. How all the other players reflect upon him and themselves as they are confronted with his tenacity and meek submission. They shine through his impossible behavior.

On top of these story complexities that entice the viewer to mull over the characters and their motivations, the movie is visually astounding. Filmed on location in the deserts of Israel, it uses existing ruins as its anachronous backdrop and intersperses the film with chance footage of vulture-filled skies. The vision is further made stark by modern day tanks and jet planes swooshing by, and guards carrying rifles. The cinematography is beautiful with long shots reveling in every detail of the landscape and its occupants. It never loses its luster. Just like in Voyna i Mir, the authenticity of the images lends it a perennially magnificent quality.

But what else could catch the attention in a rock opera as much as the music? There is something about singing as a means of communication that lifts up and endures. It would be extremely hard to say the things this story needs to without becoming heavy-handed, preachy, stilted or plain farcical. But in song, not only can you get away with so much more, you can add layers of meaning, wordplay, choreography. The music and lyrics by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice are the best they’ve ever made. Performers Ted Neeley (Jesus) and Carl Anderson (Judas) are awe-inspiring, even in tassels and surrounded by hippie dance squads. From the first soft words of Judas on a hillside to the ominous prophesies of Caiaphas in his palace, the fevered dancing of Simon and his followers, the final moments of the crucifixion – the music is what makes this more than just a film, but an experience that can be relived again and again.

The first reaction a person nowadays might have to JCS is one of disbelief and mockery. This is just a group of people in weird costumes (the leather headdresses of the priests! The moccasins and hemp shirts! Outrageous sunglasses!), dancing in the desert! But strip away those barriers of cultural cynicism, which is learned behavior and quite useless in life. Approach the film at an honest level and you’ll find a deeply rewarding journey.

What more can I say about this audacious opera, that I listened to endlessly growing up and inspired me so? Perhaps only this: the irony is not lost on me that an atheist would have found such solace and joy in a movie about Jesus Christ. Now, I might think that’s just an example of random chance, but if you so choose, you’re free to believe it a playful wink from above.

Roderick Leeuwenhart


  1. Interestingly, I only remember this movie for putting a daring '70 disco vibe on the story. I probably watched it too long ago, but none of the other elements you mention stuck to me at the time.

    As for an interesting view on the Jezus story, I think Life Of Brian does an incredible job. Its satire is incredible strong, and a lot of the 'jokes' stick as strong arguments for atheism to me.

    1. Perhaps you should try this one again. Like I wrote, it's very repeatable!

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